US Supports Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to Lead the WTO (Finally)

By Arthur Appleton

Arthur Appleton, JD, PhD is an Adjunct Professor of International Trade Law at SAIS Europe and a Partner with Appleton Luff – International Lawyers.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Elections have consequences and the US presidential election is having positive consequences for the World Trade Organization (WTO). On Friday 5 February 2021 the Biden administration announced its strong support for the appointment of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be Director General of the WTO – a nomination that the Trump administration blocked in autumn 2020. This is an important development for several reasons:

  • The US change of position marks the reengagement of the United States with multilateralism, the WTO, and the rule-based international trade system.
  • When appointed, Dr Okonjo-Iweala will be the first woman and the first African to head the WTO. With the exception of Roberto Azevêdo (Brazilian) and Supachai Panitchpakdi (Thai), all previous GATT and WTO Directors General have been from the developed world.
  • The Trump Administration’s decision to single-handedly block Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment was particularly disruptive as the post of Director General had been vacant since August 2020. Its decision was also unusual as the United States is a major beneficiary of the international trade regime and Dr Okonjo-Iweala knows the United States well. A Nigerian citizen, Dr Okonjo-Iweala studied and worked for many years in the United States and acquired US citizenship in 2019.

Gender, race and developing country considerations are important in the WTO’s appointment process. Even more important is the experience Dr Okonjo-Iweala will bring to the WTO. She holds a BA in Economics (magna cum laude) from Harvard and a PhD in Regional Economics and Development from MIT. A mother of four, she worked for 25 years at the World Bank, rising to the position of Managing Director. She also served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister, where she was known as a debt reform and anti-corruption advocate, and she served for three months as Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. In addition, Dr Okonjo-Iweala is the former Board Chair of Gavi (The Vaccine Alliance) and sits on the Boards of both Twitter and Standard Chartered Bank. In short, she is extremely well-qualified to manage and lead the WTO.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala will face many challenges when her appointment is finalized. She will have the difficult task of restoring US confidence in the international trade regime. She will also have the difficult task of making the WTO more responsive to the needs of the developing countries which make up the majority of its membership. Finally, she will be tasked with reform of the WTO’s dispute settlement system. The Trump administration was hostile to the WTO in general and the WTO’s Appellate Body in particular. It held the dispute settlement system hostage by blocking all Appellate Body appointments; this eventually led to the Appellate Body’s (hopefully temporary) demise. Although it was never clear how the Trump administration would “reform” the dispute settlement system, the US Trade Representative’s criticisms were ably presented in a 174 page USTR Report. There are points raised by the USTR that merit careful consideration by Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s and the WTO’s membership. 

Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s credentials are impeccable. Her ability to rise to the top of the World Bank and the government of Nigeria, and her ability to navigate both the corporate and the NGO world bode well for her ability to lead the World Trade Organization. Both developed and developing countries should be enthused.

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